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"Mary Poppins": Practically Perfect in Every Way

by on January 26, 2009

Mary Poppins simply needs no introduction. It is arguably Walt Disney’s single biggest achievement in motion pictures; it features one of the all-time great screen performances (and debuts) by Julie Andrews; it is one of the few films that practically everybody has seen; it is universally loved and yet has a literate intelligence rare in family movies.

As it must have been for many people, Mary Poppins was a special childhood film for me. I watched it over and over again. I can still mouth the words to every scene, so etched are they in my heart. Richard Sherman sums it up nicely: “You see, this picture was done with love, nobody was saying ‘What’s in it for me? How much am I going to get?’ It was all heart, it was all done with great love. And that’s constantly being proven, here forty years later we’re still talking about it. And nobody was thinking about anything but making a wonderful movie, ’cause they loved it and they loved Walt … this is special. There aren’t too many movies made this way”.

I could spend a lot of verbiage extolling the many virtues of this film. Every aspect is “practically perfect in every way”. Julie Andrews was born to play the part of Mary Poppins. Her performance is perfectly balanced: she is prim but never brittle; full of pride, vanity and self-satisfaction but never haughty; always polite but somehow cheeky; always in control but never in a way that is bossy. As Andrews herself says on the commentary, “she’s very very demure and proper on the outside, but there’s always this little flash of colour, or hint of colour, which suggests something a little more cheeky”. The casting of this film is spot on, with everyone from Glynis Johns as the secret-suffragette Mrs. Banks to Jane Darwell in her final film performance as the bird woman exceptionally suited to their roles. Every part contributes to its perfection: the unforgettable songs of the Sherman brothers; Peter Ellenshaw’s staggeringly beautiful paintings of London; the gorgeous costume and set designs of Tony Walton (incidentally, Julie Andrews’s ex-husband); stunning cinematography; the breathtaking 14-minute dance sequence on the rooftops of London. I could go on and on. In fact the only flaw I can think of in Mary Poppins is Dick Van Dyke’s famously appalling cockney accent; but, as he says in one of the extras, we Brits forgive him that.

For me the “hero” of the piece is not Mary Poppins or even Bert, but the father, George Banks, as played brilliantly by David Tomlinson. It seems to me that it is for George Banks’s sake, rather than the childrens’, that Mary Poppins visits Cherry Tree Lane. Banks strives, as much as possible, to be the perfect Edwardian gent, but in trying so hard he fails to realise that irrationality and “sugary” things are as much a part of life as reason, sobriety and order. Rather than being some sort of saccharine critique of stiff Edwardian culture, Mary Poppins herself is the perfect Edwardian lady. She is all the things that George Banks strives to be: strict, orderly, proper, moderate and polite, but she also allows the scope for irrationality and for fun (within limits). And this is what she teaches both the kids and George: that order and fun are not necessarily mutually incompatible. She helps Banks become the complete Edwardian gent he has always wanted to be. Mary Poppins represents a firm rebuke to people who take on certain doctrines blindly and without imagination and who subsequently end up taking themselves too seriously, not because they shouldn’t believe in the things they do, but because they think that such a belief should preclude them and others from having a laugh. Many people, who, like George, feel trapped in a certain mode of thought and way of life and who don’t allow themselves the luxury of a good time, would do well to take note. A friend of mine once suggested that this represents the Nietzchean critique of Western Metaphysics: that it is a mistake to rely on reason alone because irrationality is a key constituent of the human condition. I’m still not sure what I make of that, but “a spoonful of sugar” does go “a long long way”.

Disney has just released a two-disc, 45th anniversary DVD of the film. The first disc presents the film in 1.66:1 aspect ratio with an optional audio commentary, a pop-up trivia track, a selection of songs with optional subtitles for the lyrics, and a few ‘sneak peeks’ at some future Disney projects. Obviously, the audio commentary is the most interesting extra. It consists mainly of two separately recorded sessions, one with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke and the other with Richard Sherman and Karen Dotrice (who played the little girl, Jane Banks); these are interspersed by recorded excerpts from, among others, the director, Robert Stevenson, Robert Sherman, and, of course, Walt Disney himself. It’s enjoyable enough. Andrews’s comments are by far the most insightful, and she seems like the person who did the most research; Van Dyke is generally affable. However, whenever the commentary track switches to Dotrice and Sherman, I half found myself wishing for Andrews and Van Dyke to come back, mainly because Dotrice’s comments are just a bit self-indulgent—even if understandably so, as they are childhood recollections. (Overall, I think I prefer organic, continuous commentaries to these heavily edited mash-ups, because the latter always seem so disjointed.) Nonetheless, it is well worth listening to, especially for the odd poetic moment from Bob Sherman. One gripe I have, though, is the fact that you have to choose between the commentary and the trivia pop-ups, there is no option to watch the film with both turned on. I think this is a mistake, because I suspect most people will want to watch the film only once with an extras track, and are more likely to treat themselves to the commentary than to the trivia option. This would be a shame, because it is full of interesting little tidbits that would have complemented the commentaries well.

Disc 2 has many more bonus features, most of which are repeated from the 40th Anniversary edition. New to this set, however, is the collection of extras about the recent Broadway musical version of Mary Poppins. “Mary Poppins: From Page to Stage” (48.04) offers a sustained look at the process of adapting the source material for the stage show. There is also one of the numbers from the show available either as an extra (“Step in Time”, 7.08) or downloadable mp3 and a series of stills featuring set and costume designs (“Bob Crowley’s Design Gallery”). All these are mildly interesting in their own right, but if, like me, you don’t really give two hoots about the Broadway show and only really care about the film, they feel a bit tagged on. Oh, and there’s a bonus short called “The Cat That Looked at a King” (9.52), based on P. L. Travers’s Mary Poppins Opens the Door. This features present-day Julie Andrews and a little girl who jump through a chalk drawing to find an (animated) king and queen. I thought it was charmless and pointless yet harmless enough; make of it what you will.

The stuff repeated from the 40th Anniversary set is collected in a section called “Backstage Disney”. This material will be much more interesting to fans of the film and Disney aficionados alike. The main feature here is “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious: The Making of Mary Poppins” (50.43), which is an illuminating look at how this film was put together. Particular emphasis is placed on Walt’s personal involvement with the project and his twenty-year struggle to get the author, the impossibly upright P. L. Travers (who by all accounts was a formidable character), to agree to let him have the rights to her stories. One gets the sense from this documentary that the people at Disney think of this as Walt’s crowning glory. He was involved in the development of every aspect of the film’s production from the casting, the songs, the set designs, the revolutionary special effects, the trade-mark animatronics—sometimes one wonders what the director, Robert Stevenson, actually did. This documentary also benefits from the participation of Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, who seem to have contributed a fair amount of their time to this documentary and the other bonuses in this section. The two main impressions I took from most of the interviewees is that, whatever their achievements, they seem to recognize their contributions to Mary Poppins as their greatest work; also, that everyone who ever worked with Walt Disney seems to have loved the man (Dotrice even starts crying at one point). The Disney Studios of that time still seems like one of the most magical and most creative places that man has ever conceived.

The next featurette is one of the most random and incongruous I have ever seen, “Movie Magic” (7.05). It features oddly edgy, “funked up” music and a horribly contrived “cool” youthful voice-over who says things like “check out Bert’s dancing” and “when it came to animation, Disney was the man”. I don’t really understand why this bonus exists, who it is designed to appeal to, or why I spent seven minutes watching it. Much more interesting is “The Gala World Premiere” (17.45) which has footage, culled from various sources, from the opening night of the movie replete with star interviews. It is interesting if only to see how a world premiere might have looked in 1964, there is something entertainingly awkward about the stiff, all-American style of the main presenters. “A Magical Musical Reunion” (17.18) is basically a chat between Richard Sherman, Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke about how some of the songs developed; it has some interesting anecdotes. “A Musical Journey with Richard Sherman” (20.51) is a more “studio produced” (and therefore stagy) effort from Sherman. It is quite amazing just how many songs he and his brother wrote for the film and interesting to hear the ones that didn’t make the cut. One thing that struck me was that practically all of Walt Disney’s creative decisions and reasons for making them were more or less spot on; I’m glad, for example, that “Chimpanzoo” (1.39) was cut from the tea party on the ceiling. Another thing to note is just how studious the Sherman brothers were in taking influences from vaudeville and music hall for these songs. I’ve always felt that Mary Poppins, despite being made entirely in Californian studios, has a marvelously authentic feel to it, and a good deal of that can be attributed to the Shermans’ carefully-crafted songs.

In closing, I’d say it’s worth getting this if you don’t already own Mary Poppins on DVD or if you have the old 1998 print, which has very few extras. However, if you own the 40th Anniversary Edition, unless you have an unquenchable thirst for documentaries about the Broadway musical, I wouldn’t bother; especially given that 45 years is a pretty arbitrary anniversary date to celebrate. And you know there’s going to be a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious 50th Anniversary release in five years.

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